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Clarke's sparks to be continued

Stand by for action in 2003. It is just 73 days since Charles Clarke was appointed to head the department rocked by the impromptu resignation of its beloved leader after a series of embarrassing blunders. We can expect now a cascade of announcements to signal that the ministry is off the back foot and that the Government, in the capacious, if not capable, form of Mr Clarke, has got a grip again.

Already pencilled in for January on the Education Secretary's new calendar is the announcement of what he hopes will be the least unpalatable way of making all but the poorest pay more for university education. So too is the revised blueprint for broadening training and education for 14 to 19-year-olds, along with the delayed secondary league tables. But the most fundamental challenge in education remains teacher retention and recruitment, which makes a settlement over workload essential.

There are signs of growing impatience with the posturing of the National Union of Teachers in these protracted negotiations. The department had not been required or allowed to negotiate seriously with teacher unions for decades. So it has had to learn how to do so again. According to unions now ready to sign up to the deal, it has moved considerably in its stance to meet their concerns over plans to "modernise" the profession.

The TUC is also keen to demonstrate to the Blair Government, in the wake of the fire service debacle, that modernisation of major public services by collective agreement is possible. The NUT appears less able to adapt to this switch from gesture politics to negotiation, however, and seems to be busily painting itself into a corner. The union may have a point somewhere but seems less interested in winning it than playing to the audience.

It is, of course, the union which represents more primary teachers than the others - teachers who have most to gain from the promise of half a day a week non-contact time but who may also feel most vulnerable to substitution. Teaching assistants should assist, not replace, teachers. Unlike secondary specialists, there should be no problem recruiting more primary teachers to provide the extra teaching required, if there is the will to do so.

The deal already being offered is said to enshrine those things which only teachers can be allowed to do. If the NUT wants additional safeguards it should be capitalising on the Government's new willingness to listen to the profession rather than indulging in megaphone diplomacy through press advertisements criticising the proposals.

Unison, the union that represents many teaching assistants, is expected to endorse the deal at its executive meeting on January 15, leaving the NUT as the only dissenter. All the others are "on the bus", ministers are now fond of saying, and it is likely to leave without Doug McAvoy. Just in time to collide with this year's pay review body report and the discontent over London weighting which has already sparked strike action among the NUT's most volatile members. So expect action in 2003 of one kind or another.

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